At a moment’s notice one’s entire life can change for the worse. Such is the case for married couple Sarah (Olivia Wilde) and Phil (Luke Wilson), whose son, Jessie (Casey Walker), is abducted from a gas station on their way to Ithaca from New York City. After Jessie goes to the bathroom for a suspicious amount of time at the station, Phil, a cop, demands that the attendant open the door, only to find that the bathroom leads to a mechanic garage where there isn’t a trace of anyone. Panicked, the two begin shouting his name in that urgent state that indicates total helplessness.
Director Reed Morano (best known for his cinematography and whose first time it is in the director’s seat) then cuts to a year later, showing Phil and Sarah at their friends’ apartment, trying their best to feel normal–a fact quickly negated when Phil mentions to Rob (Mark Feuerstein) that Sarah shouldn’t be drinking so much as she’s on lithium. Sarah’s behavior mirrors that of another troubled woman from 2015’s cinematic landscape, Laney Brooks in I Smile Back. Like Laney, Sarah takes lithium but decides to go off of it in favor of “more effective” numbing agents. But before she spirals completely, she attempts to find solace in her teaching job, looking to students like Adam (Ty Simpkins)–known for his Asperger’s syndrome, as well as being at the mercy of foster parents–for meaning and distraction. She even takes a cue from one of her more troubled pupils by starting to cut herself and listen to metal.
Phil, meanwhile, attempts more conventional means of coping by attending a grief support group where he meets Pete (John Leguizamo), a man who lost his daughter to a drunk driver and muses to Phil about what he might do to the man responsible if he ever saw him again. Losing sense of what’s right and wrong anymore, Phil–with his police connections–digs up the man’s address for Pete and tells him to “do what he has to do.” Disgusted with Phil’s literal interpretation of his fantasy, Pete leaves the address on the table and walks out of the restaurant. The search for Jessie has amplified when a lead in Pennsylvania presents the very real notion that Jessie has most likely been killed by his captor. When Phil tries to acclimate Sarah to this possibility, she refuses to accept it, telling Phil’s brother, Tim (Giovanni Ribisi), who has been staying with them, that she knows Jessie is still alive.
Sarah’s fixation with Adam and protecting him from his apathetic foster parents, Shannon (Elisabeth Moss) and Joe (Kevin Corrigan), intensifies when she begins following both separately and interacting with them. In Joe’s case, her interaction leads to drunken sex, during which time she steals the keys to his car to go pick up Adam from school. Though hesitant to get in the car with her, Adam can’t resist the proposition of going to Africa to see an elephant sanctuary he’s long dreamed of visiting (elephants are his obsession, after all). As Sarah loses all control of herself and her actions, the denouement of the film is an ideal balance between chaos and calm, a testament to screenwriter Chris Rossi’s first major screenplay being a tautly constructed emotional landmine.